Thoughtful reflection

For over 20 years Peter Carnley has been a thoughtful and at times provocative voice in Australian public discourse, straddling ecclesiastical and secular worlds and issues with aplomb. Now that his retirement as Anglican Archbishop of Perth and Primate of the Australian Church has been announced, Reflections in Glass appears as a not-quite-parting shot. It presents his concerns on issues from theology to bioethics to ministry to religious pluralism, and embodies his mode of leadership not so much as representative conciliator but as an inspirational leader and controversialist.

Carnley’s conflicts with the Anglican Diocese of Sydney have been no secret and are a prominent thread through this book. From the opening pages which narrate the controversy surrounding his 2000 Bulletin article on ‘The Rising of the Son’ to the chapters on women’s ordination and religious pluralism, conservative evangelical Sydney Anglicans are a real or implied opponent in the articulation of Carnley’s ‘progressive orthodox’ Christianity.

This constant subtext of a debate between Anglicanisms—Peter Carnley to the West and Peter Jensen to the East, as it were—could be read as a slanging match between duelling scholasticisms, liberal and evangelical. Some readers will wonder whether the polarity between progressive and fundamentalist tendencies in the Anglican Church might be handled more creatively—whether by rapprochement or just amicable separation. At many points, however, this struggle with a conservative Christianity documented in Reflections in Glass will be enlightening to people of faith, beyond as well as within Anglicanism, who seek alternatives to the conservatism so evident across traditions and denominations in Australia recently. Archbishop Carnley’s thought is actually as different from the liberalism of Bishop Jack Spong as from the fundamentalism this book opposes. He begins with a clear fidelity to key elements of Christian doctrine, but seeks to ask how they can be interpreted in ways that do justice both to tradition and to contemporary realities. In this respect the Australian Anglican Primate can justly be compared with the English one, Rowan Williams.

Three chapters on aspects of leadership and ministry are relatively clearly focused on Anglican issues—the possibility of ‘lay administration’ of the Eucharist (a Sydney proposal to authorise a further order of local elders who have the same liturgical roles as priests), the role of priests, and the possibility of women as bishops. These include some technical discussion of the political and legal processes the Anglican Church faces in dealing with them, but also a broader engagement with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian traditions which face (however readily they admit it) similar fundamental questions about the nature of ministry and the roles of women and men in church and society.


The title Reflections in Glass is an allusion to St Paul’s metaphor of seeing divine realities imperfectly in a mirror. Dr Carnley returns to the theme of mystery at numerous points, arguing for a Christianity that allows and even celebrates uncertainty over claims of propositional assurance. Chapters on revelation ‘God:


Manifestation or Mystery’, the nature of doctrine, and scripture all deserve to be read widely and discussed fully by Christians of various backgrounds. That on the Atonement—just how the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection save us—may be the most interesting of these particular theological explorations. Just as Dr Carnley’s thoughtful approach to the resurrection was widely misunderstood some years ago, early reaction to this book suggests that his understanding of Atonement has again become a tripwire for those inclined to confuse a foundational Christian doctrine with a particular understanding of it. In fact, he deftly points to the difference common in Western Christian thinking since Anselm that Jesus saves us by taking the punishment due to us, and the actual doctrine of the Atonement which can of necessity be interpreted or presented in a variety of ways. Again he argues that dogmatic precision is not the point, and can even be dangerous and unorthodox. ‘Atonement’, he says, ‘does not really need a theory; what it needs is a liturgy’. Reflections in Glass is an engaging survey of the concerns of a leader and scholar of remarkable breadth. The significant shadow cast by its author will continue to encourage those across the Christian community and beyond, for whom faith and mystery are friends rather than rivals. 


Reflections in glass: Trends and tensions in the contemporary Anglican Church
Archbishop Peter Carnley.
Harper Collins, 2004. isbn 1 863 71755 2, rrp $35

Reverend Dr Andrew McGowan is the director of the Theological School and Joan Munro Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College, University of Melbourne.

 

 

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